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Contagion, cosmopolitanism, and human rights in Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow.

This essay explores the association between the outsider (as transnational migrant, social outcast, city dweller, and HIV-positive person) and disease in South African novelist Phaswane Mpe's 2000 novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow. It argues that Mpe's text appropriates the trope of contagion from contemporary xenophobic discourse and reconfigures it to uncover the transnational and rural-urban interconnections in post-apartheid South Africa erased by scapegoating immigrants from other parts of the continent as the primary carriers of AIDS. In the absence of an effective international legal mandate for addressing human rights violations, the text combats such abuses through Afrocentric and yet overtly cosmopolitan acts of narrative memorializing. By working relentlessly to theorize the interchange between the local and the cosmopolitical, Mpe offers an important model for human rights scholarship that aims to engage with witnessing and memorializing the vulnerable body and to contextualize diseased bodies within narratives about rights and shared responsibility.

This essay explores the association between the outsider--as transnational migrant, social outcast, city dweller, and HIV positive person--and disease in South African novelist Phaswane Mpe's 2000 novel Welcome to Our Hillbrow. As Odile Cazenave points out, Mpe's characters are linked through a trope of infection (2007, 672): despair, violence, and AIDS are all transmitted among characters as forms of contagion. Yet these transmissions belie the discourse of xenophobia in post-apartheid South Africa, in which all of these social ills are blamed on "Makwerekwere," the immigrants and refugees from other parts of Africa who have streamed into neighborhoods like Hillbrow in Johannesburg since the end of apartheid. The novel presents an array of South African-born city dwellers whose urban modernity makes them guilty of many of these same social ills, to the dismay and shame of their families. Thus, as often occurs with xenophobic discourse, the characteristics ascribed to the migrant can also be used to police the behavior of homegrown social rebels or outcasts. My examination of Mpe's novel focuses on the ways in which the text appropriates the trope of contagion from this xenophobic discourse and reconfigures it to uncover the transnational and rural/urban interconnections in post-apartheid South Africa erased by scapegoating the Makwerekwere. On a broader level, I seek to consider the possibilities of the concept of contagion as a means for approaching questions of cosmopolitanism, human rights, and shared vulnerability in the era of globalization.

Cosmopolitanism offers one of the oldest available discourses for addressing questions of solidarity, shared responsibility, and mutual entanglement, and it has seen a scholarly resurgence in the last two decades. Wary of the problematic roots of the term, from the paradoxically exclusionary universalism of the Greeks to the Enlightenment Eurocentrism of Kant, scholars have attempted to temper its claims in various ways. Homi Bhabha's "vernacular" cosmopolitanism, Mitchell Cohen's "rooted" cosmopolitanism (1992), Bruce Robbins's "actually existing" cosmopolitanism (1998), Benita Parry's "postcolonial cosmopolitanism" (1991), and Kurasawa's "cosmopolitanism from below" (2004) speak to the desire among contemporary critics to salvage the term for discussions of the kinds of contemporary vulnerable subjects I describe in the opening paragraph: migrants and refugees, marginalized city dwellers, and those living with diseases like HIV/AIDS that circulate globally regardless of whether their carrier has left his or her hometown. (1) In the wake of this "cosmopolitan revival," as Christian Moraru calls it, many scholars remain unconvinced that the term can shed enough of its universalizing and Eurocentric baggage to be put to responsible use, arguing that in fact the term functions as simply the ideological accompaniment to and justification for the excesses of globalizing capitalism. In this overly simplified equation, "cosmopolitanism is to globalization what superstructure is to base" (Moraru 69).

For scholars working on issues of human rights, globalization, and culture--which is the shorthand I will use to locate myself--the term 'cosmopolitanism' raises several key questions: To what extent can the term escape its Eurocentric origins? And to what extent is cosmopolitanism a description of aesthetic and material tastes or affects that may or may not lead to anything beyond a desire to consume particular products or images? Bruce Robbins and Pheng Cheah attempted to push the conversation toward existing, partial, and grounded versions of cosmopolitanism through the term "cosmopolitics," but its problematic associations are hard to escape (Robbins 1998, 9). In my case, it is precisely the term's association with aesthetics, consciousness, and affect that make me hesitant to abandon it. Human rights offers an important conceptual framework for addressing legal, medical, and political questions, but I am not convinced that it is the ideal frame for describing the transnational affinities stemming from art and imagination that are so central to much contemporary literary and visual art. I hesitate to propose a simplistic schema, in which cosmopolitanism is the consciousness or utopian vision that produces the political will to achieve human rights. But I do think there is a space between the legal mandates of human rights and the imaginative representation of shared aspirations or shared humanity that still demands further elaboration. In the absence of a convincing term for that space, I experiment with cosmopolitanism here. As I attempt to show, for Mpe cosmopolitanism describes a way of being in the world that is attuned to the types of narratives we tell, the audiences to whom we tell them, and the people who yearn for the same kinds of stories we do or who want to respond to different stories in the same ways we do. I will return to these questions about aesthetics later, but I want to mark this use of cosmopolitanism as a specific kind of universal thinking.

Human rights discourse, as another universalizing kind of thinking, interests itself less in the terrain of feeling and aesthetics and more in the legal and moral prescriptions governing the relations of bodies and states to one another. As with cosmopolitanism, which provides its philosophical genealogy in many ways, there have been several important critiques of the universalizing impulses and political limitations of human rights discourse. One of the key questions that has emerged concerns the origin and circulation of ideals such as 'freedom' and 'dignity' upon which human rights discourse so heavily depends. Are the ideals of human rights internal to the individual or acquired through socialization? As Joseph Slaughter demonstrates, contemporary human rights documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) attempt to mediate a philosophical impasse between human personality as innate to the individual and as a product of legal prescription, which accounts for the "split personality." Thus, the UDHR's "preamble initially treats human personality as if it were an innate aspect of the human being, but the articles [then] describe it as an effect of human rights--the product of contingent civil, political, cultural, and economic formations and relations" (2007, 61). If the "human personality" is imagined by human rights discourse as (at least partly) innate, to what degree are these ideal traits simply an articulation of Western values posing as universals, proclaimed without regard for messy local contexts and complicated histories? When it comes to fictional representations of human rights abuses, Western readers are prone to ignore such questions about universality, demanding easily legible stories about the development of this "human rights personality" from writers who come from the global South. Slaughter cites the immense popularity of Khaled Husseini's The Kite Runner as one example of the phenomenon by which such writers "package a modicum of tolerable, even cherishable, cultural difference in a generic story form that insinuates a transnational affinity between the novel's reader and its protagonist-reader" (322). As the case of Husseini's novel demonstrates, the Western taste for these stories, which Slaughter dubs the "new literary humanitarianism," can impel not only problematic sentimental affinities but outright military intervention in the name of enabling the stories of successful development, of innate freedom and dignity achieved, that we want to consume.

Another crucial issue for human rights discourse is its problematic reliance on the constructs of the nation-state and the citizen. As Pheng Cheah points out, "the most glaring deficiency ... in the protection and enforcement of human rights is their paradoxical link to the civil rights provisions of individual nation-states and, therefore, their natural dependence on citizenship within a sovereign state" (2006, 5). Given the fact that the subject of human rights is the citizen, who is supposed to be guaranteed these rights by the legal and political apparatuses of the nation-state, how can we understand the human rights of illegal immigrants, refugees, the stateless? Cheah rightly leads us back to Hannah Arendt's articulation of this paradox in The Origins of Totalitarianism: "Civil rights--that is the varying rights of citizens in different countries--were supposed to embody and spell out in the form of tangible laws the eternal Rights of Man, which by themselves were supposed to be independent of citizenship and nationality" (1968, 293). As Arendt makes clear, this reliance on the nation-state as purveyor and guarantor of rights becomes especially problematic in cases where the state is in fact the agent responsible for human rights violations, whether against citizens or noncitizens.

How do we approach questions of human rights as literary scholars in light of these philosophical and political limitations? Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg and Alexandra Schultheis Moore offer a useful response to this dilemma, exhorting scholars to "read for articulations of human rights in local and transnational contexts that uncover or produce alternative modernities, narratives, and ways of articulating political, economic, cultural, and social justice claims that fall outside the national-legal spheres of institutionalized human rights" (2012, Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow offers an important example of such an articulation; Mpe uses the contemporary AIDS epidemic in South Africa to examine the human rights claims of a locally situated person implicated in the global circulations of disease. It is important for Mpe that this person is only fully legible at the meeting point of local and cosmopolitan conflicts over culture and signification. In the absence of an effective international legal mandate for addressing human rights abuses (Slaughter 2007, 29), the text combats the violation of these rights by local and transnational actors through an Afrocentric and yet overtly cosmopolitan act of narrative memorializing. Thus the novel presents storytelling as a means to re-humanize the diseased body (but importantly, within its own Afrocentric ethos of the human), a body marginalized by nationalist policies and within popular discourse about immigration and AIDS in post-apartheid South Africa.

By working relentlessly to theorize the interchange between the local and the cosmopolitical, Mpe offers an important model for human rights scholarship that aims to engage with witnessing and memorializing the vulnerable body and to contextualize diseased bodies within narratives about rights and shared responsibility. On the formal level, Mpe's second-person narrator situates himself at the same interchange, as he speaks directly to the local dead, represented by the figures of Refentse and Refilwe. By means of the second person voice and the ritualistic repetition of "our," he also manages to implicate the reader as listener and participant in a cosmopolitan community. Whoever and wherever you are, you are not simply the audience; you are already part of the story, incorporated within Mpe's ever-expanding narrative community. Mpe's narrative incorporation of the reader offers a radical reformulation of the kind of cosmopolitan consciousness from which the universal ideals of human rights ostensibly emerge. He achieves this reformulation by thinking questions of human rights and cosmopolitanism through the concept of contagion.

If cosmopolitanism has historically--and problematically--assumed as its foundation an individual citizen who chooses to associate himself with a larger community by thinking of himself as a citizen of the world, Mpe offers a different narrative. In the era of global migration, spurred on by the circulations of global capital, contagion offers a more realistic model for understanding global interconnection. In this narrative, you are already part of a cosmopolitan community; your body is vulnerable to its shared weaknesses whether you like it or not. I am not the first scholar to notice how the trope of contagion lends itself to representations of community boundaries and identity. As Priscilla Wald explains in her recent book Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative,
  Contagion is more than an epidemiological fact. It is also a
  foundational concept in the study of religion and of society, with a
  long history of explaining how beliefs circulate in social
  interactions. The concept of contagion evolved throughout the
  twentieth century through the commingling of theories about microbes
  and attitudes about social change. Communicable disease compels
  attention--for scientists and the lay public alike--not only because
  of the devastation it can cause but also because the circulation of
  microbes materializes the transmission of ideas. The interactions
  that make us sick also constitute us as a community. Disease
  emergence dramatizes the dilemma that inspires the most basic of
  human narratives: the necessity and danger of human contact. (Wald
  2008, 2)

Wald's claim that "the interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community" is of particular importance to my exploration of the complex relationship between discourses of contagion and cosmopolitanism. In theory, the discourse of contagion serves the opposite function of cosmopolitanism. If the latter has tended to fixate on the benefits of contact across the boundaries of discrete communities and advocate for ever-greater circulations of people and ideas, the former serves as a warning about the potentially disastrous consequences of such contact. Wald finds this tension between the costs and benefits of contact at the root of "the most basic of human narratives" (2008, 2).

In its most xenophobic mode, the discourse of contagion degenerates into what the historian Alan Kraut calls "medicalized nativism," justifying the "stigmatiz[ation]" of immigrants via their association with "communicable disease" (quoted in Wald 2008, 8). But to recuperate the concept of contagion from xenophobic discourse, as Mpe does in his novel, provides an important corrective to some overly celebratory understandings of the cosmopolitan. Most importantly, it challenges representations of cosmopolitanism as simply an individual affect, a mode of consciousness achieved by a select few. By definition, contagion demands plurality. There is no communicability without contact, whether actual physical contact or imaginative contact through the act of reading. Secondly, while contagion challenges the nationalist fantasy of closed borders by easily crossing even the most heavily armed national boundaries, it also draws attention away from the fetishized concept of the nation-state by highlighting transmissions between rural and urban areas within the nation as well as within regions. Diseases don't simply travel willy-nilly, as the celebratory narrative of globalization often implies about a borderless world; they follow specific economic circuits and they affect certain populations disproportionately, in particular those without access to adequate medical care, such as the poor, refugees, migrants, people of color, and queers.

In Welcome to Our Hillbrow, South Africans blame the Makwerekwere, immigrants and refugees from other parts of the continent, for the AIDS epidemic within the country and, by extension, for a general moral decline associated with the rapid urbanization of the post-apartheid era. The term Makwerekwere, Mpe's narrator explains, "derives from kwere kwere, a sound that their unintelligible languages were supposed to make, according to the locals" (2000, 20). The term's emphasis on the immigrants' linguistic difference highlights their social illegibility. Within this xenophobic discourse, immigrants function as mute bodies, available for sex and other forms of labor, transmitting nothing except HIV; their language, culture, and history are non-communicable.

South African struggles with HIV/AIDS are well known at this point, especially given the shameful public spectacle of Thabo Mbeki's AIDS policy during his presidency from 1999 to 2008, characterized by his inexplicable embrace of a scientifically marginal position denying that AIDS was in fact caused by HIV. Mbeki's health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, refused to mobilize government resources adequately to disseminate antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and famously "proposed garlic, lemon juice, and beetroot as AIDS remedies" (Dugger 2008, A1). It would be easy to dismiss such laughable comments if they did not have such a direct and devastating impact on South Africans suffering with AIDS. A 2008 study by Harvard researchers contended that the Mbeki administration's refusal to distribute ARVs to patients with AIDS or to administer drugs to pregnant women that would have prevented them from transmitting the virus to their babies led to the preventable deaths of at least 365,000 people (Dugger 2008, A1). The authors of the Harvard study offered the following conclusion: "Access to appropriate public health practice is often determined by a small number of political leaders. In the case of South Africa, many lives were lost because of a failure to accept the use of available ARVs to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS in a timely manner" (Boseley 2008). The criminal negligence of the Mbeki government with regard to AIDS highlights precisely the power of the state over the lives and deaths of its inhabitants, a biopolitical monopoly against which international human rights groups often have little control. The apartheid government exerted such biopolitical control through the enforced separation of racial groups and the denial of education, medical resources, and basic civil rights to the majority of the South African population. As Mpe's novel demonstrates, immigration and HIV/AIDS have become the new battleground on which post--apartheid biopolitical struggles are waged.

Subject to constant police harassment and reliant upon illicit trades such as prostitution and drug dealing for their income, the Makwerekwere occupy a position uncomfortably similar to that of black South Africans under the apartheid regime. This irony is not lost on the novel's protagonist, Refentse. In an argument with his cousin, a police officer, Refentse emphasizes that many of the Makwerekwere "were fleeing their war-torn countries to seek sanctuary in our country, in the same way that many South Africans were forced into exile in Zambia, Zaire, Nigeria, and other African and non-African countries during the Apartheid era" (Mpe 2000, 19). Refentse is shamed by the knowledge that his cousin sexually abuses and collects bribes from immigrants desperate to stay out of jail, knowing that they have no recourse to legal protection if they are caught. As he despairingly concludes, "No one seemed to care that the treatment of the Makwerekwere by the police, and the lack of sympathy from the influential Department of Home Affairs ran contrary to the human rights clauses detailed in the new constitution of the country. Ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies ... the stuff of our South African and Makwerekwere lives" (23).

What this xenophobic discourse masks is the fact that many of the ills blamed on the immigrants are a consequence of internal displacements resulting from South Africa's rapid emergence as a regional, and increasingly global, economic powerhouse. The novel represents the friction between its urbanized young protagonists in Hillbrow and their families back in the village of Tiragalong, who fear that their youth have been corrupted by the city. (2) Yet for Mpe, Tiragalong is equally imbricated in the economic and ideological circulations the villagers associate with urban modernity. In fact, it is the workers who migrate to the city for work who supply the people of Tiragalong with most of their news. As the novel points out, "migrants (who were Tiragalong's authoritative grapevine on all important issues) deduced from ... media reports that AIDS's travel route into Johannesburg was through Makwerekwere; and Hillbrow was the sanctuary in which Makwerekwere basked" (Mpe 2000, 4). The foreign and the urban get collapsed here as versions of the same threat to traditional values, the knowledge of which is ironically transmitted back to the village by its own members who "migrate" to the city. Like the immigrants in Hillbrow who are seen as in, but not of, South Africa, these migrants may go to the city to earn a living, but they preserve their credibility with their fellow villagers by distancing themselves from the phenomena they describe.

However, Mpe's novel takes great pains to undermine the villagers' attempts to draw clear lines between rural and urban, native and foreign. The most poignant incidents in which these divisions blur involve episodes of witchcraft. Contemporary South Africa has seen a resurgence of belief in witchcraft since independence, as rural peoples struggle to retain their values in the face of social dislocation. As the novel explains, attempts to deploy witchcraft fail because they are based on a belief that AIDS is confined to foreigners and city dwellers. Thus, the people of Tiragalong "did not realize that several of the people they had buried in the past two years were victims of AIDS. It was easy to be ignorant of this, because the disease lent itself to lies. Such people were thought to have died of flu, or of stomach-ache. Bone throwers sniffed out the witches responsible, and they were subsequently necklaced [burnt alive with a car tyre around their necks]" (Mpe 2000, 121). It is only when one of their own daughters, Refilwe, comes home to die of AIDS that the villagers must acknowledge the vulnerability to contagion they share with the Makwerekwere.

Unlike her ex-boyfriend Refentse, whose movements before his death were confined to Tiragalong and Johannesburg, Refilwe circulates transnationally, living in London for a year while she completes a master's degree in publishing at Oxford. Like many of her fellow villagers, Refilwe has participated in the xenophobic rhetoric that blames South Africa's problems on foreigners. It is only when she arrives in London and sees the ways in which other Africans, especially Nigerians and Algerians, are treated that she begins to question her stance. British customs officials at Heathrow allow her to pass easily because she is South African. But
  it was not the same for these other Africans. These Africans from the
  West were the sole bringers of AIDS and all sorts of other dirty
  illnesses to this centre of human civilization. Their passports were
  scrutinized, signatures checked, double checked, and triple checked.
  Our Heathrow strongly reminded Refilwe of our Hillbrow and the
  xenophobia it engendered. She learnt there, at our Heathrow, that
  there was another word for foreigners that was not very different in
  connotation from Makwerekwere. ... Except that it was a much more
  widely used term: Africans. (Mpe 2000, 101-102)

In a sign of her emerging cosmopolitan consciousness, Refilwe's recognition of the similarities between xenophobic rhetoric at home and abroad paves the way for a new sense of shared African identity. In fact, during her time in London, Refilwe ends up falling in love with a Nigerian student. Toward the end of the school year, both of the lovers begin to deteriorate physically and discover that they have AIDS. It is essential for the novel that she does not "catch" AIDS from the Nigerian; the doctor confirms that they have both been HIV-positive for years. Not wanting to be a burden on her, the Nigerian lover decides to return to Nigeria. For her part, Refilwe decides she wants to die at home, even if, as she says, "it meant exiting this world amidst the ignorant talk of people who turned diseases into crimes" (116). Contagion, as Refilwe realizes, is the condition of modern life, whether in Tiragalong or London. We are all potentially or already sick without exposure to foreigners; one can become infected without ever leaving home.

The structure of the novel reinforces this expansive sense of belonging as shared infection. The refrain of "Welcome to our Hillbrow" (Mpe 2000, 2) in the first chapter expands in scale over the course of the text to include "Welcome to our England" (97), "Welcome to our All" (104), "Welcome to the World of our Humanity" (113), and finally "Welcome to our Heaven" (124). Refilwe is welcomed into Heaven at the end of the book by a cast of other characters, all of whom have died and are being memorialized by the unnamed omniscient narrator. The conception of heaven laid out by this narrator is fundamentally narrative: "Heaven is the world of our continuing existence, located in the memory and consciousness of those who live with us and after us. It is the archive that those we left behind keep visiting and revisiting; digging this out, suppressing or burying that. Continually reconfiguring the stories of our lives" (124). (3) Mpe's cosmopolitan text suggests that the task of the aesthetic is to memorialize the complex interconnections among people, even those connections people might wish to hide or ignore. Toward this end, the novel dramatizes the competing narratives about the current South African issues of AIDS and immigration. According to the xenophobic rural/nationalist narrative, both the AIDS crisis and immigration involve foreign elements that must be excised through witchcraft. But the narrator demonstrates repeatedly that there is more to these stories than meets the eye: the bone throwers cynically exploit their knowledge of local feuds and relationships for profit, while the villagers erroneously believe that there is a cure for social ills. In contrast, the narrator's cosmopolitan narrative invokes an interconnectedness for which there is no cure. No god intervenes to restore a parochial moral order; moreover, we are all guilty (or potentially guilty) of the same crimes and linked by our shared bodily passions and our shared vulnerability to suffering.

But is cosmopolitanism necessarily a fatal disease? Are the most viable definitions of cosmopolitanism those that focus on our shared sense of frailty, our vulnerability to contagion? Mpe offers a powerful cosmopolitan vision of interconnectedness, one that resonates with contemporary scholarship on ethics and mourning. Neville Hoad, drawing on recent work in queer theory on melancholia, identifies Mpe's novel as an elegy that invites us, as he puts it, to "share the work of mourning" (2007, 123). The narrator's melancholic attachment to the dead, who must be continually re-narrated to "ensure their continued existence" in Heaven, models for Hoad a cosmopolitan ethical relation to the other. As he concludes, "I think Mpe's novel can move its protagonists and readers from a xenophobic, exoticizing position in relation to the African HIV/AIDS pandemic to the melancholia of a cosmopolitanism that can embrace other people's dead" (126). However, we might ask whether cosmopolitanism is always elegaic. Hoad's emphasis on cosmopolitanism as shared vulnerability to loss echoes Martha Nussbaum and Paul Gilroy. Think, for example, of Nussbaum's introduction to For Love of Country?, in which she describes how the horror of September 11 opened a brief window in the American psyche to traumas in other parts of the world (2002, ix). Similarly, Gilroy argues in his introduction to Postcolonial Melancholia that "multicultural ethics and politics could be premised upon an agonistic, planetary humanism capable of comprehending the universality of our elemental vulnerability to the wrongs we visit upon each other" (2005, 4). Yet, as the debate around Nussbaum's essay "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism" (collected in For Love of Country?) demonstrates, there are reasons to be wary of the limitations of such liberal cosmopolitan visions. Such visions fail to take into account the ways in which different subjects are positioned in relation to the privileges of citizenship and pose the cosmopolitan and the national as antithetical or mutually exclusive. (4) The elegiac mode of cosmopolitanism that Hoad identifies in Mpe's novel offers an important corrective to this version of cosmopolitanism by highlighting shared vulnerability without collapsing racial, national, and other divisions. But the question remains as to whether loss, already experienced or anticipated, is the only sustainable basis for a cosmopolitan vision.

If we entertain the argument that cosmopolitanism is most ethically responsible in this melancholic mode, it is reasonable to ask what this means for human rights. Are human rights only meaningful in the context of their violation? And is the ill, tortured, dying body the only legible human rights body? I am not convinced that this is an argument we want to make, or at least not the only one. To continue with my use of contagion as condition and metaphor for human interconnectedness in a global age, it might be useful to think a bit further about the concept of "health." The right to health has been a central tenet of human rights discourse, defined in the preamble to the 1946 World Health Organization (WHO) Constitution as "a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity," and incorporated into later documents such as the UDHR and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The language of the WHO Constitution manifests this tension about health as a positive versus negative right by emphasizing well-being over "absence of disease or infirmity" (UNHCR 2008, 1). Yet one of the most profound lessons of Mpe's novel is the impossibility of achieving any absolute absence of contagion, any sure protection against contamination. This problem of perpetual contamination, as Cheah points out, is also the intrinsic condition of human rights, which is why he presents the portion of his book Inhuman Conditions on human rights as "an outline of the normativity of human rights that acknowledges their contaminated nature without reducing them to ideological reflections of global capitalism" (2006, 146). Cheah's point is about the inescapable imbrication of human rights with the global capitalist mode of production that is their historical condition of emergence, but Mpe's novel pushes the conversation about contamination further.

As a human rights text, Welcome to Our Hillbrow embraces contaminations of all kinds, presenting physical rights (freedom from disease, access to medical care, etc.) as inextricable from social rights (freedom of speech, freedom from xenophobia, freedom to love), the local as inextricable from the foreign, and the bodily as inextricable from the narrative. Significantly, Mpe, who suffered from ill health for several years, had decided not long before his death to leave his position at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and pursue training as an Ngaka, or healer in the Sepedi tradition. (5) In an interview with Lizzy Attree the month before he died, Mpe described the inextricable connection between the body and the story in Sepedi healing practice:
  I know many traditional healers. Beyond using herbs, they are also
  interested in stories. Because when people come to you and say, "I've
  got a problem," you don't just say, "well is it a headache? Here is
  medicine for your headache," you also want to know how they are doing
  in their social relationships, because perhaps the headache might
  come from elsewhere, from a source other than a germ or virus. So you
  really have to be interested in stories, and I see a connection
  there. And of course if you hear stories and you see you have
  experiences of meeting people, then inevitably you'll also tell
  stories, whether that will translate into writing or not is something
  else. I hope in my case they'll translate into writing. (Mpe 2055,

As in the WHO's definition, health here is a holistic enterprise, involving not simply the bodily but the narrative symptom. The illness, as Mpe notes, "might come from elsewhere, from a source other than the germ or virus." In light of the South African government's endorsement of an AIDS policy that refused to connect the disease of AIDS to the HIV virus that caused it, this is a dangerous claim to make (even if not specifically directed at AIDS). But apart from its wider scope, Mpe's narrative differs from Mbeki's in one other essential respect: Mpe's "might" opens the space for contested narratives, for a contaminated relationship between the physical and the narrative. This is precisely the space Mbeki's AIDS policy shut down.

In Mpe's novel, Heaven constitutes the voraciously incorporative space in which personal narratives are perpetually contested, continually re-narrated based on the memorializing practices of the living. As I mention earlier in the essay, Mpe's concept of Heaven as an archive of personal testimony begs comparison to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process completed not that long before the novel was written. But there are some important distinctions to be made here as well. Whereas Desmond Tutu promised TRC participants that telling the truth about prior human rights abuses would itself perform the work of healing (1999, 54), Welcome to Our Hillbrow makes no such guarantees. For one thing, the relationship between the residents of Heaven and the living in the novel disrupts any easy narrative chronology of present and past. Past human rights abuses continue to "air" like television programming in Heaven, continually reinserting themselves, as in melancholia, into the present. They are not simply told once and consigned to the past, mourned, and overcome to allow for the work of nation-building. Moreover, the residents of Heaven continue to watch the post-apartheid abuse of the Makwerekwere and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic unfold in the present, an important refusal of any possibility of transcendence or distance. While the residents of Heaven watch their loved ones in danger, they are unable to warn them or protect them from harm.

Yet as persuasive as I find Hoad's argument about the ethical work of melancholia, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the Afrocentric nature of this Heaven, in which the continuing presence of the ancestors is not merely a symptom of melancholia but part of a larger conception of the ongoing relationship between the living and the dead. Mpe's Heaven is not a place you get to after death but a place with which you are already engaged while living. And as the representation of Heaven's inhabitants in the novel makes clear, they exert their own demands on the living. I ask above whether we want to present cosmopolitanism as most ethically responsible in an elegiac mode. I suggest here that one of the most important moves Mpe makes is to challenge the Eurocentric divide between melancholia and mourning. The traumas of the dead do continue to repeat themselves, and the dead stay with us. However, Mpe invites the reader into a more complex sense of how and what we might draw from the ongoing presence of the dead among us. The novel is an elegy, but it is not only an elegy.

Heaven thus holds a certain promise as the space of "welcome" to an expansive "our," as the locus of an expansive cosmopolitan consciousness. If what makes such cosmopolitan consciousness accessible, as the novel suggests, "is that it exists in the imagination of those who commemorate our worldly life" (Mpe 2000, 124), then Mpe offers a kind of hope different from that offered by the TRC. It is not that we narrate human rights abuses to move past them. Rather, we narrate the complicated conditions of cosmopolitan consciousness as a shared archive in which contested understandings of concepts such as 'justice,' 'humanity,' and 'health' may take shape on earth, always contaminated by their historical conditions. In other words, the incorporative mode of Welcome to Our Hillbrow represents an alternative model for understanding the process through which such terms and concepts become universal: they are produced through this always contested and expansive dialogue conducted not only by the living but by the dead they seek to memorialize. This memorializing is enacted by narrating stories of human rights abuses and marginalized community formations, of connections forged by shared displacement and artistic ambition. Importantly, the person constructed in the process is incorporated not into the nation-state--the incorporative mode of the citizen--but into a constantly shifting, simultaneously more local and more expansive narrative space of "our humanity." (6) These stories about our shared contagion may not heal in and of themselves, but they provide us with new strategies for describing what ails us.


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Bhabha, Homi. 1996. "Unsatisfied Notes on a Vernacular Cosmopolitanism." In Text and Narration, edited by Peter C. Pfeiffer and Laura Garcia-Moreno, 191-207. Columbia, SC: Camden House.

Boseley, Sarah. 2008. "Mbeki Aids Policy 'Led to 330,000 Deaths.'" Guardian. November 26.

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My sincere thanks to Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg, Alexandra Schultheis Moore, and Greg Mullins for organizing this special issue on human rights, as well as the ACLA seminar from which it originated. I am deeply indebted to Alex McKee, as always, and to my anonymous readers for their insightful comments on this essay.

(1.) Several anthologies and monographs on cosmopolitanism came out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including Cheah and Robbins's Cosmopolitics (1998); Dharwadker's Cosmopolitan Geographies (2001); Breckenridge, Pollock, Bhabha, and Chakrabarty's Cosmopolitanism (2002); and Vertovec and Cohen's Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context, and Practice (2002). Christian Moraru offers a useful genealogy of the term in his 2011 study Cosmodernism: American Narrative, Late Globalization, and the New Cultural Imaginary; see especially 68-73 and 209-13.

(2.) This genre about young men from rural areas ruined by urban life has a long history in South Africa. Often known collectively as "Jim Comes to Joburg" stories, for the 1949 film of this name, the narratives are meant to be cautionary tales about the loss of roots, homing narratives about the importance of remembering who you are and where you came from. As such, we could consider them versions of the bildungsroman. Since Mpe's novel resists the narrative trajectory of this genre by implying that the country and the city are not only both corrupt but mutually constitutive, we could consider his novel a "dissensual bildungsroman" in Slaughter's terms, a text that "inverts the affirmative rights claim of the idealist genre by publicizing the discrepancy between the rhetoric of liberty, equality, and fraternity and the inegalitarian social formations and relations in which that rhetoric is put into historical practice" (2007, 182).

(3.) Heaven as a constantly contested and reconstructed archive in Mpe's novel bears a striking resemblance to the archive of testimony assembled through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an issue I explore in greater detail at the end of this essay.

(4.) For a sharp analysis of Nussbaum's "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism" and the responses to it, see Bruce Robbins's "Root Root Root: Martha Nussbaum Meets the Home Team" in Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999).

(5.) The conditions surrounding Mpe's illness and death are somewhat mysterious. He was rumored to suffer from AIDS, and many considered his death in December 2004 a suicide.

(6.) Slaughter makes the useful point that, historically, human rights are not the rights of the lone individual or even "the rights of humanity in general; they are the rights of incorporated citizens--the rights of persons acting in their corporate capacity as state" (2007, 89). This is the model of incorporation beyond which I argue Mpe moves.

EMILY S. DAVIS is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Delaware. She recently completed a book about deployments of intimacy in contemporary transnational fiction and visual culture. Her work has appeared in Camera Obscura, Genders, and the anthology Detective Fiction in a Postcolonial and Transnational World.
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Author:Davis, Emily S.
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Date:Jun 22, 2013
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